On the surface, there would seem to be all sorts of practical and financial reasons for farmers to work together. Instead, formal and informal working relationships seem to fall apart more readily than new relationships are forged.
Farm labour is usually in short supply. For seeding and harvest, two or three people working together should accomplish more than each working separately.
Farm equipment is a big cost. Teaming up to buy major pieces of equipment – tractor, seeder, sprayer, combine – would seem to make sense.
And in some cases, it happens. Usually, it’s within families with two brothers or two cousins farming to-gether. An upcoming generation may also be involved. These may be formal partnerships or a corporation. However, there are also situations where there are simply working relationships between separate legal entities.
Sometimes you see longstanding agreements between neighbours. Perhaps they do most operations separately, but team up for harvest work.
While this sort of co-operation makes sense on paper, many of the arrangements fail over time. One or both parties may grow to believe that they’re getting the short end of the stick. Personality conflicts can emerge, sometimes involving spouses or the younger generation.
Sometimes goals and farming approaches diverge and compatibility suffers. As farmers, we tend to be an independent bunch.
During tough times, co-operation may be vital. When margins are good, independence is more likely to be viable.
If you think about your own community, odds are that you know of farming arrangements that have been terminated — relatives or neighbours that have gone their separate ways. Sometimes the parting is amicable, sometimes hard feelings linger.
Interestingly, less formal, ad hoc co-operation seems to be thriving, at least in some communities. It’s the attitude of, ‘I’ll certainly help you if I can and I know you’ll do the same.’
Bill and Nancy lose several seeding days due to a major tractor repair. John and his son have a good run and when they’re finished, they help Bill and Nancy finish. John knows that another time he may need a favour.
Bill and Nancy may pay for the custom seeding, or it may be just “marked on the wall” to be repaid in-kind at some future date.
Jason owns a land roller, but when he’s not using it on his own pulse crops, he rents it to a nearby producer. Jason always has first call on his roller, but the neighbour has better access than waiting for a roller from a rental company.
Larry wants to try some soybeans, but to save time and improve efficiency he has the 80 acres seeded by a neighbour who has been growing soybeans for several years. In return, Larry seeds a field of wheat for the neighbour.
Rick and Susan are hit with a hailstorm and have very little to harvest. There’s still a good crop in the area, so they provide some custom combining service for neighbours and also rent out some of their unused bin space.
Farmers can be fierce competitors to buy or rent farmland. Over time, bad blood can also fester over anything from a spray drift mishap to a contentious community issue. This can hinder co-operation.
But helping when you can and accepting help when you need it is a great safety net. It also creates a strong sense of community, and you aren’t trapped in a business relationship that may become stifling.
Kevin Hursh is an agricultural journalist, consultant and farmer. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.